After nearly 22 months of partnership, the national unity government, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon worked so hard to preserve, has collapsed. After trading increasingly caustic barbs, followed by on-again, off-again negotiations that seemed on the verge of resolving the crisis, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer handed in his resignation at 5:50 p.m. Wednesday, ignoring pleas from some of Israel's top industrialists and legal practitioners including, at times, this newspaper to put aside narrow political interests for the sake of the country.
Yet, perhaps this is for the best. The purpose of a unity government is never unity for its own sake, but effectiveness. Emerging from the political infighting and sharp oscillations of the 1990s, often manipulated by Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority to suit his own purposes, it is understandable that Sharon came to power calling unity a "strategic asset." Politically, too, the presence of Labor in the government gave Sharon the latitude he needed to confront his fickle and often irresponsible right-wing coalition partners, as he did earlier this year when he fired Shas's ministers.
Yet Arafat's ability to influence domestic Israeli politics is today all but nonexistent, given the broad consensus among Israelis about his unreliability as a peace partner. By contrast, the Labor Party's ability and willingness to stymie the government never more evident than in its refusal to agree to the budget has been greatly enhanced, as has its ability to engineer a foreign policy largely independent from that of the prime minister. A government that speaks with two voices, sometimes more, makes for muddled, inconsistent, and often incoherent policy. It cannot hope to be effective.
It is argued that an election campaign is the last thing Israel needs right now, not least given the possibility of war in Iraq and the difficult security issues that raises for the government. Certainly, an Israel that trades governments as often as Italy does is not an edifying spectacle.
Yet elections are not merely distractions; they are also great clarifiers. They offer the victors a mandate. And they give losers the chance to reassess their own ideologies and political strategies. These are benefits both Labor and Likud, as well as the country at large, sorely need.
On the Likud side, the simmering and distracting contest between the prime minister and Binyamin Netanyahu, his likely challenger, needs at last to be resolved the party needs the discipline and direction that only a leader who does not face internal opposition can offer.
Much the same goes for Labor. If its rank-and-file members prefer the politically suicidal alternative of an Amram Mitzna candidacy to the politically lackluster one of a Haim Ramon or Ben-Eliezer one, so be it. As with the US Democratic Party and the British Labour Party in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, it seems that only repeated electoral drubbings can bring about the change of leadership, as well as the change of ideas, needed to again make it politically relevant.
None of this should distract the government from its pressing tasks on the economic and security fronts. A government that knows what it's about, and an opposition that knows what it's against, are positive elements in a functioning democracy.
Then, too, democracies are resilient things; the security apparatuses of state will continue to function whatever the political situation. The economy, as well, does not need the paternalistic leadership of government to continue to function in the three or four months during which the country's political future remains unclear.
Margaret Thatcher, who was perhaps the most influential politician of her generation, distinguished between two types of politicians. "If you've got a message," she once said, "preach it. I am a conviction politician. In the Old Testament, prophets didn't merely say: 'Brothers, I want consensus.' They said: 'This is my faith and vision. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it too, then come with me.'"
We have put the politics of consensus on a pedestal, because we have had such bitter experience with the politics of division. What we have not tried, and even assumed could not exist, is a politics of conviction, in which like President George W. Bush has done on Iraq leaders set out a clear direction and make a convincing case for it.
On Tuesday, Linoy Saroussi and Hadas Turgeman, both 14, and Orna Eshel, 53, were shot dead by a terrorist while sitting on a bench in a quiet community. Our economy must be revived, or it will continue to decline. A war is about to be fought that could change the face of the Middle East. This is not a time for muddling through without a thought as to how to confront the major challenges before us.
We have had two years of faux consensus; it is now time for some conviction.
©2002 - Jerusalem Post